David Wolpe Demonstrating Sam's Point

The Jewish TV network has a video of Sam Harris in debate with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple. I have streamlined the exchange, at 13+ minutes, somewhat:

Rabbi David Wolpe: "You said explicitly that religion is the only thing that we believe things on insufficient evidence. . . . On what evidence do you believe that life is worth living?"

Sam Harris: "I think that that’s a misconstrual of how we talk about beliefs. . . . People attacked me with the line, “but we need faith to get out of bed in the morning, our lives are built on faith” That’s not the kind of faith I’m attacking."

Rabbi David Wolpe, interrupts: "I’m asking you whether you believe that life is good or worthwhile on the basis of scientific evidence. Because if you don’t then I would amend your statement to, “religion and everything else that is of central value in our lives, we believe on evidence that is not susceptible to scientific proof.”

Sam Harris: "You’re equivocating on the meaning of the word “belief”. I don’t believe that life is worth living – that’s not what gets me through my day. I am operating as though life is worth living because I am seeking various states of happiness, I am avoiding suffering, I’m moved by compassion. I have these states in me that presuppose the reasonableness of not killing myself at the end of the day.

Rabbi David Wolpe, interrupts: "Which is not so different, by the way, from a religious person who would say . . . you know, religion is not belief in a proposition, it’s an orientation towards life."

Wolpe is actually equivocating on more than "belief": he's misapplying the term "evidence"; he's misstating what Sam could otherwise have said; he ought to know better than to think that science ever claims to have proven a theory; and he inadvertently illustrates Sam's point about the equivocated meaning of belief.

Belief simply means to hold something to be true, whether or not it is actually true. This is a mental state, and, as applied to belief that life is worth living, indicates a state of expectation based upon past and current experience. Religious belief, or religious faith, as Sam implied, is the mental state of holding some claim to be true despite the absence of sufficient evidence to rationally support the belief. The scriptures actually have nothing specific to say about the value of life insofar as getting out of bed in the morning. Any such assumptions have been built into interpretations of religion.

The evidence that leads any individual to personally consider life worth living is experiential. There is no need to demonstrate our personal experiences to each of us in order that we believe ourselves. Those whose experiences repeatedly indicate that their life is not worth living are not helped much by religion – improved circumstances would help.

Sam is correct to say that there is no evidence to support religious belief in the proposition that the supernatural exists. Wolpe's fallacious argument in an attempt to counter this fact is an argumentum ad ignorantiam.

Wolpe is incorrect to say that no scientific evidence could be gathered concerning those things that are of value in our lives. However, scientists do not claim that all such things are technically experimentally accessible, nor that they need be investigated scientifically.

Scientists could gather evidence concerning an individual's life situation, and could measure the decreased frontal lobe activity that is correlated with emotional depression. So, scientific evidence could be gathered, though scientists would not bother with such an investigation, and a psychiatrist would administer antidepressants without such a demonstration. Wolpe is not really interested in such data, he merely wishes to make a different point. To imply that life must be explained either by religion or by scientific evidence is to create a false dichotomy.

Finally, Wolpe reduces religion to the level of attitudes, to the level of framing of personal experiential evidence. This is an atheistic view of religion – it has expunged the supernatural from religion, leaving a mere framework for interpretation of experience. Wolpe has tossed out religious propositions, leaving only a sense of the spiritual. This coincides with Sam's view.

I have yet to find a good argument by a deist or theist. Shifting the actual definition of the deity or the definition of religion is a common ploy.

However, I have not yet listened to the entire debate. You never know, Wolpe's arguments could improve.

.........they didn't. I quit in disgust at 33 minutes, after Wolpe had blamed the Holocaust on science.

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